On that particular morning, I was jarred awake by the phone ringing. For 22 months I had been the volunteer lay chaplain, the only chaplain, in fact, for our local hospice program.
"Things are bad at Mr. White's house. William is dying. The nurse and the family volunteer have both been there all night and need to leave now. Are you available to stay with the family?" My friend, Betty, who is the volunteer coordinator, is asking.
Soon I find myself driving slowly and carefully along the twisting roads in the hill country nestled not far from the small town in which I live. This is truly God's Country. The sounds that penetrate the silence are buzzing insects and calls of birds and animals; one passes from the sun-dappled road into dancing shadows of overhanging tree limbs, then out again, playing hide-and-seek with the star that warms our earth.
William's family is exhausted. Eldest daughter Rita, who has been up most of the night, is trying to nap on the living room couch. The two youngest daughters, Krista and Laurie, are talking quietly in the kitchen. Meg is at her father's bedside, and Catherine, William's wife, isn't here. She's probably resting in her bedroom.
Meg, I learn, has been her Dad's "boy"--the one who went fishing and hunting and learned to swing an ax in a masculine manner. This slim, attractive
professional woman; wife, mother of three, had promised her father that she would not leave him alone in his dying.
Hours drag by. I watch the sun journey from its low rising point past the noontime meridian. Meg and I discuss our common belief that when a person dies, an angel or a family member comes to accompany the newly deceased's soul toward the light that is our God.
How aware is William of what is actually going on? I don't know. He hasn't uttered a sound since my arrival, but I know that hearing is the final sense to leave a person's physical body. And so we talk of the beauty of the day. We talk about the birds around the feeders, and the squirrel trying to shimmy up the pole to feast on seeds that were not intended for him.
The question I always dread most is, "How much longer can this go on?" I wish at these moments that I were a prophet who could know the hour and minute, or at least the day when a patient will exhale that last breath.
"When?" Meg asks me repeatedly during the slow moving hours of the day.
I can only shrug my shoulders and reply, "Only God knows."
At one point, close to the evening mealtime, I think death might be near, and I bring the family to William's bed. Once again, I am reminded that God's time is not our time. We wait and watch. His breathing is slower than ever. His
skin is turning gray, his feet are beginning to mottle. Signs of impending death are mounting--but death will not come.
We take a break for supper; all of us, that is, save Meg, who stays right by her father's side as she promised. After dinner, we gather again in William's room. The shadows lengthened as the sun approaches the western horizon and dusk begins to descend.
Suddenly I see it.
The biggest raccoon I have ever seen in my life lumbers over the ridge of the hill that abuts the back yard. He waddles from side to side until he is under the swing set. Then he just sits and stares at us. He isn't foraging for good. He is just staring.
"Look out the window at that huge raccoon," I ask. "Have you seen it before?"
"No." Catherine says, "We've been watching a racoon come into the yard for food but it wasn't as big as this one."
The racoon and I then enter into a staring contest. It is like young childred daring one another not to look away first.
"So have you finally come for him?" That is the unspoken message my brain sends to the raccoon. I had recently read a book that described how angel
messengers inhabit animal bodies. This is typical of what William and Meg believe. They will countenance no winged, gossamer angels dancing on heads of pins or upon bed rails, but a heavenly being in a raccoon's coat is most acceptable.
The patient clears his throat as if to say something to us--or to whomever he sees. He takes another breath, clears his throat again--and dies. The racoon immediately leaves, following the same route upon which it entered our field of vision.
Perhaps it was just a fat raccoon, but you'll never convince Meg. Or me. Angels have many jobs, but heralding God's messages and leading souls back to their heavenly homes seem to us to be their two finest missions.
[FRANCES, WE NEED THE EXCERPT INFORMATION]